In alphabetical order of authors, I am posting the details every day over twelve days, and today it is number eleven which was a ‘challenging’ book. Please comment on my crit and offer me your own best reads of the year.
There are few novels that prompt me to keep a dictionary handy but whenever this author writes, and especially when he is at the top of his form, Will Self writes such novels. Umbrella is a fascinating experiment in High Modernism. And there is no hint that this is pastiche: it’s the real thing and a challenging read from end to end but, to me, incredibly satisfying. Like Mantel’s book listed by me yesterday, it was on the 2012 Man Booker short list and would have been a worthy winner if there had been a tie with Hilary Mantel.
The novel’s epigram is in fact taken from Joyce’s Ulysses: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella” and it would be fair to say that Umbrella does for Friern Barnet what James Joyce did for Dublin although Self’s story may extend over a longer time period: I’d need to check whether the several flashes back and forward actually alter the time frame but life, though not this book, is short. In one continuous narrative, uninterrupted by any chapter breaks and moving through different times and narrative streams without warning, it recounts the reflections and observations of, inter alia, the psychiatrist Dr Zak Busner, and his sometime patient Audrey Death, to whom he administered L-Dopa. The story has echoes of Awakenings by Oliver Sacks that translated so well to the screen but these parallels only heighten the emotional intensity of the story, given that one can predict how the experiments will turn out. As psychiatrists will understand, the umbrella of the title becomes at different stages a penis and a syringe, as well as a means of keeping off the rain. In a similar pseudo-Freudian vain both Joyce’s and Self’s book titles start with U. Was that deliberate? I confidently predict the novel will be on several university syllabi before the end of 2013. Verdict 9 out of 10
Look out for my final book tomorrow. Happy reading!